The art of the deadly political abbreviation

A member of College Republicans National Committee dresses as Grim Reaper as he marches on Capitol Hill to call on the Senate to eliminate the death tax June 8, 2006 in Washington, DC Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Associating policies with death is a strong motivator, experts say

Anthony Brown's shock loss in the race to be governor in the US state of Maryland was blamed in part on the "rain tax" - a pithy name for an obscure stormwater management fee. It's the latest in a long-line of snappy - but deadly - political abbreviations, writes Taylor Kate Brown.

Taxes on large inheritances were not an issue for many Americans until a Republican pollster tied the policy to the most human experience of them all - death. "The 'death tax' doesn't tax death," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center. "But we're all going to die - even though the estate tax doesn't apply to many people."

Even so, "death tax" (or "estate tax" depending how you feel about it) is a prime American example of linguistic framing. By describing policies using pre-existing negative associations, Dr Jamieson says, voters are more likely to oppose it than they would otherwise.

In 1995, proponents of a ban on a medical procedure known as intact dilation and extraction pulled off a rhetorical coup by dubbing it "partial-birth abortion". Opponents of the ban argued "partial birth" wasn't medically accurate, but it was hard to explain why it didn't fit the description of the procedure in everyday language - despite being politically charged. "Anytime you have ordinary language competing with technical language, ordinary language will win out," Dr Jamieson says.

There was Republican President George W Bush's "personal savings accounts" versus Democrats' "privatisation of Social Security" (the Democrats won that one). And the "assault weapons ban" which banned only some firearms that weren't already banned. Or in the UK, the oft-discussed "bedroom tax" or "spare room subsidy". Such framing is rarely done to convince opposing ideologues. Campaigns or parties find an issue they dislike and use framing to rile up opposition.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption "Personal savings accounts" versus "privatisation"
Image copyright AP
Image caption Palin's "death panels" caused a stir

Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College says Sarah Palin's Facebook post on an end-of-life provision of President Barack Obama's healthcare law - or in Ms Palin's parlance, "death panels" - has "crystallised the opposition to the Affordable Care Act and affected the debate". It co-ordinates the message among allies, he says.

Michael Bronstein, a Democratic strategist, agrees. He has a warning for candidates hit by this kind of messaging. "Don't ever speak those words". By even saying them, even in jest, "you've adopted that position".

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